By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
YORK—Local teenager Andrew Poirier has been named one of 16 recipients nationwide of this year’s Terry Fox Humanitarian Award, which will support him through his post-secondary studies in the field of nursing.
“I feel very humble that the committee felt I was worthy of this honour. There were over 700 hundred applicants, and around 60 were interviewed. I think I am still in shock,” said Poirier on winning the award.
Previously, Poirier has also received the Youth Citizen of the Year award from Haldimand County, the Ontario Junior Citizen award from the Ontario Community Newspapers Association, the St. Joseph’s Spirit of Hope Youth award, and the Vimy Ridge Pilgrimage award, which afforded him the opportunity to travel to Europe to learn first-hand about Canadian military history.
Coincidentally, Poirier first saw symptoms of what would be diagnosed as juvenile enthesitis-related arthritis when he participated in a Terry Fox run at age 11: “I had been playing football and swimming and then when I tried to run in my school’s Terry Fox run, my knee was really swollen, and I could hardly walk.”
Poirier didn’t immediately realize what the diagnosis would mean for his future, forcing him to give up many sports. His diagnosis also means that sometimes he needs to use a cane, crutches, or a wheelchair to get around, and he says it hurt him when people judged him as “being lazy.”
Poirier’s experiences pushed him to shine awareness on mental health disabilities. He started in ninth grade, asking his school principal at Assumption College in Brantford to organize a mental wellness week.
“The mental wellness week at my school was a week for celebrating each person’s unique and authentic personality,” he described. “We did different activities, such as making drawings out of chalk at the entrance of our school. We had our school band perform outside like a mini-concert and many types of indoor games.”
It was around this time that Poirier first heard about Wounded Warriors Canada, which he calls “a fantastic organization.”
Part of Wounded Warriors programming is supplying therapy dogs to veterans suffering from PTSD or OSI (occupational stress injury), a cause that spoke to Poirier.
“I help that program by building and selling birdhouses using old wood, paint, and a license plate. I sell these for $25 each, and the entire amount goes to Wounded Warriors Canada. So far, $10,800 has been donated,” said Poirier, crediting much of his success to a supportive community that provides materials and purchases birdhouses. Anyone interested in donating supplies or purchasing a birdhouse can reach Poirier via email at email@example.com.
“It means so much to me when people care and assist me when I am struggling, and I would like to be able to return that kindness and support to those who have a mental illness,” he said. “I know firsthand what it is like to be judged by your appearance. It is devastating. It makes me question my abilities and my self-esteem. I am friends with people who experience mental health issues and have physical and cognitive disabilities. When people are kind and supportive, it makes such a difference in their lives.”
This list of accomplishments is already eye-raising, but Poirier’s achievements also include a role on the Haldimand County Accessibility Advisory Committee since 2018: “The committee does a lot of great work,” he said. Through his involvement, Poirier took on a role as a page at the Cayuga library, where input from the committee led to greater accessibility features in the new building.
“It has been a great learning experience for me because I don’t feel silly asking questions. Everyone is patient and takes the time to teach me things. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to my community.”
Since age 14, Andrew has also volunteered at the Good Shepherd Men’s Shelter in Hamilton preparing food: “I would cut carrots, make sandwiches, peel potatoes, or anything else the chefs needed me to do. At the start of the pandemic, the Good Shepherd was not open for volunteers. It was hard to be away from somewhere that gave me a lot of happiness.”
Poirier was elated when the doors opened back up to continue volunteering, with safety precautions in place.
“I often think I gain way more than I give and love the feeling of sharing each other’s skills and coming together to make life a little bit easier for someone else. Also, I get to meet different people and we can all talk as we work.”
This fall, Poirier is returning for his final year of high school at Assumption before heading off to begin his studies in nursing, a career path he chose because he “wants to give people the same positive health care experiences that I have had,” inspired by the kindness of the rheumatology team at McMaster that has been a part of his life since his diagnosis.
“They take an interest in my life, not just my illness. They remember what sports I like and always encourage me to try new things. I started swimming again. It’s different now, but with their encouragement, I was able to complete my National Lifeguard last year. It was really hard for me physically, but I think my team was more proud than I was!” said Poirier. “My nurse, Nurse Debbie, is my inspiration. She always believes in me, and that means so much to me.”
Poirier says he will go back to visit the team long after he transitions to adult care.
“I don’t think I will ever stop being an advocate for people with disabilities,” summed up Poirier. “Sometimes I make waves, but sometimes you just need to stand up, even if it is uncomfortable. I’m not afraid to speak out.”